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Interplanetary Romance in 1920s Russian Film Classic

“Aelita: Queen of Mars,” available online with English intertitles, is a potent mix of domestic melodrama, science fiction and social commentary.

The year is 1921. After receiving an enigmatic telegraph dispatch, engineer Loss becomes obsessed with its source and meaning, believing the message to have originated from Mars. His dissatisfaction with the harsh reality of post-revolutionary Moscow, unhealthy jealousy of his wife and fixation on the Red Planet creates a dangerous fantasy, which almost results in madness and murder. 

Yakov Protazanov’s 1924 feature “Aelita,” based on the novel of the same name by Alexey Tolstoy, is widely recognized as the first Soviet science fiction film. Its alien set ensembles and costumes, created by avant-garde artist Aleksandra Ekster and stage designer Isaak Rabinovich, are believed to be an inspiration for Fritz Lang’s dystopian classic “Metropolis.” Various plot devices, most importantly a dream sequence, propagated by Protazanov have become the standard and even cliche in modern moviemaking. 

Yet, released to huge commercial and popular success, the feature was panned by critics and social activists. Rather than servicing the ideological needs of the young Soviet Republic, this high-budget film offered an acute metaphorical critique of the turbulent years that followed the October Revolution. The New Economic Policy doctrine, proposed by Vladimir Lenin in 1921, uncompromising social experimentation and devastating damage, inflicted by the Civil War, became the backdrop against which events of the film unfold. 

You can find detailed analysis of the film’s interlinking metaphors in an article by Andrew J. Horton.